My biggest takeaway from CES 2020: It's time for America's tech showcase to leave Las Vegas
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- The Consumer Electronics Show, America's biggest annual trade show dedicated to technology and innovation, has been held in Las Vegas every January for 22 straight years.
- While Las Vegas offers food, lodging, and entertainment in abundance, underneath it all is a part of a city that doesn't represent where technology is today, and fights against the progress we've made as a society - sending the wrong signal to attendees and the rest of the world.
- It's time for CES to leave Las Vegas.
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LAS VEGAS - Last week marked my third visit to CES, the annual consumer electronics expo. I first went in 2012, then 2019, and then again this year for CES 2020.
I'm a big fan of tech. I write about it on this site often, and own a ton of it at home. I'm big into progress and innovation, so I'm usually excited to see what CES has to offer each year, even when I don't physically attend.
This year, I enjoyed the show, but my biggest takeaway was that I felt like the whole thing should have been held elsewhere. Despite the glitz and glamour, Las Vegas just no longer feels right for CES.
The Las Vegas Strip can be a surreal place, and feel stuck in a bygone era - and not fitting for a show about the future. It's like holding a conference in the middle of Times Square: It's sensation overload. There's lights and signs and gift shops and alcohol and scantily-clad women everywhere you turn, from the second you arrive in the airport to the moment you enter your hotel. It's gross and overwhelming.
Mind you, this massive tech event hasn't always been held in Vegas. The year it started, 1967, it was actually held in New York City. It's also been held in Chicago, and one time in Orlando, Florida. So it wouldn't be crazy to host it somewhere new. But the annual January format we're accustomed to, holding it in Las Vegas to kick off the new year, has been this way for 22 straight years - since 1998.
There are many reasons it's time for a change. the Las Vegas Strip, specifically, isn't as great for a tech conference as you might think, and more importantly, the tech industry should be actively trying to get away from the "bro culture" it's become synonymous with in recent years.
The truth about Vegas food, lodging, and transportation
On paper, Las Vegas seems ideal for a giant trade show like CES. It has incredible food at a range of accessible price points, including restaurants from some of the best chefs in the world. It has a ton of lodging that's really cheap, even if you book last minute. And it has lots of ways to get around, from cars to buses and even a monorail.
Those things are all true. But once you're actually in Las Vegas for an event like this, you realize there's more going on under the surface.
Let's start with the food. It's true, you can have some incredible culinary experiences in Las Vegas. But most restaurants on the strip are buried deep within the hotel-casinos, which smell terrible from all the indoor cigarette smoke. (How is this still legal here?) They are also confusing to navigate and difficult to get around due to their size, and frankly, depressing as hell. Walking through these institutions is a stark reminder of how they exploit people, engineered to suck away time and profit off gambling addiction. So the Las Vegas ambiance tends to spill into the overall dining experience; it doesn't affect the quality of the food, but the visit as a whole feels less special by extension.
Lodging, meanwhile, is usually more expensive than you think. For example, many hotels in Las Vegas can be had for as little as $12 a night, or even as little as $80 for a great spot like the MGM Grand, where I stayed, which is a steal. But while base prices per-night can be low, you tend to get hit with lots of little charges. At the MGM Grand, for instance, rooms don't have refrigerators, which forces you to buy more meals since you're always throwing out any leftover food. The hotel has refrigerators they can lend you, but only if you pay $35 a night. And don't bother living off snacks from the hotel's convenience areas, since everything becomes airport prices, like $5 for a small Dasani water bottle.
Finally, the biggest issue I have with Las Vegas is getting around. Traffic is always insane during CES, there's no way around that. But actually getting from point A to point B is more of a pain here than in most cities, due to Vegas' rules around ride-share options like Uber. In Las Vegas, hotels and even the airport force ride-share services to pick up passengers from highly inconvenient locations, while traditional cabs are given priority access directly in front of the building. That means if you're used to hailing Lyfts, get ready to walk long and strange paths to get to your car - and waiting a long time for your driver, due to a combination of high demand and hard-to-find pickup areas - which adds up.
Las Vegas has a monorail, but it's unfortunately inefficient. Sure, wait times are only 5 minutes for a train, but the whole system only has seven total stops. Mind you, the Las Vegas strip is surprisingly vast. So while there's a monorail station smack dab in the middle of the Las Vegas convention center, where most of the action at CES happens, most other hotels and stops are quite far away from the monorail.
For instance, I needed to visit the Venetian hotel where Ivanka Trump spoke, but it took an extra 20 minutes to walk to the Venetian hotel from its the closest advertised monorail stop, and I was hoofing it.
Overall, Las Vegas is a lot less convenient, and more expensive, than you might think. But there's a bigger problem, and it's related to the culture. Put simply, Las Vegas should not become synonymous with the American tech scene.
America's biggest tech show deserves better
In many ways, Las Vegas encourages debauchery and misogyny. It embraces the "Sin City" moniker and the "What happens in Vegas" catchphrase. It feels very much stuck in a past where men in suits did business at strip clubs, and either didn't know or didn't care about the impacts of cigarette smoking.
Given how far we've come as a society, through #MeToo and anti-discrimination laws, Las Vegas no longer feels appropriate for CES, a trade show meant to celebrate progress.
The tech industry should be trying to get away from the Silicon Valley "bro culture" that's been mocked by shows like, well, "Silicon Valley," instead of feeding into it further.
Over the years, the tech industry has become synonymous with sexism, drugs, and partying, almost as much as actual technology; Emily Chang did a great job reporting on this male-dominated culture in her book "Brotopia." Startups like Uber gained a reputation for hard partying (and faced federal charges of gender discrimination), and even older behemoths like Microsoft did things like throw parties with go-go dancers.
But this isn't acceptable anymore. Through legal pressure, diversity initiatives, and the effects of the #MeToo movement, tech companies as a whole are starting to move away from this type of sexist and chauvinistic behavior. One of the last remaining band-aids that tech needs to tear off, in order to truly move past its hedonistic reputation, is its connection to the Vegas Strip.
If you're wondering where CES should be hosted instead of Las Vegas, I'll be honest: I have no idea. I wrote this not because I have a better city in mind, but because I feel like Las Vegas is no longer fit to host America's biggest tech show from an existential point of view. You could host CES in the middle of the desert like Burning Man for all I care.
But a wise man once said, "Don't limit your audience if you don't have to." Well right now, CES is limiting itself by continually choosing Las Vegas.
Associating America's biggest tech show of the year with a city known for old-school vice and depravity sends the wrong signal to children, attendees, and tech culture in general. Keeping CES in Las Vegas only reinforces those bad habits.